For Tourism in Iran, It Wasn’t Supposed to Be Like This
Iran has many enticements for the intrepid foreign traveler. With its culture and history, its cuisine and its arts, Iran is a highly desirable destination. But for many throughout the world, Iran’s negative portrayal in the media has a major impact on how it is viewed. For the past forty years, Iran has been depicted as a rogue state, an international pariah, and a land of religious fanatics chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” From George W. Bush branding Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” to Donald Trump’s designation of Iran as the world’s “leading sponsor of terrorism,” a particular narrative has taken root in Anglophone media that positions Iran as a dangerous, hostile, and unwelcoming country.
Dissenting voices, however, do exist. Most important among them are journalists, such as Dutch New York Times correspondent Thomas Erdbrink, whose 2018 Frontline special feature Our Man in Tehran, provides a much needed corrective on Iranian society, focusing on human-interest stories which show Western audiences slices of life in Iran. In vivid sequences, among many other topics, Erdbrink documents “ordinary Iranians’ love of country, love of travel, of music, of fun, the craving for respect and national stature, fascination with America, hatred of injustice, and reverence for parents.”
But perhaps even more important than journalists are travel-show hosts, who show through their own personal experiences just how transformative actually visiting Iran can be. Take for example, Anthony Bourdain, who captured the effect that being in Iran can have on perception of the place and its people in his CNN show Parts Unknown. He narrates his confusion in a street-scene montage at the beginning of his famous Iran episode: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Of all the places, of all the countries, of all the years of traveling, it’s here—in Iran—that I’m greeted most warmly by total strangers.” Seated at a kabob restaurant, as he rips apart a piece of noon-sangak, a popular flatbread, he says directly to the camera: “Good to be here, finally—it’s taken some time. Like, a lot of time—like, four years, I’ve been trying. Finally!” Over a shot of meat and vegetable kabobs being prepared and served, Bourdain invites the viewer to “forget about the politics for a moment, if you can,” before extoling the virtues of Iran’s rich, complex cuisine, highlighting Iranian hospitality, and noting that Iranians tend to kill guests with kindness.
While food and hospitality are featured by Bourdain, Rick Steves, another famous travel-show host, highlights the allure of Iran’s other major attraction for travelers and tourists. In the first minute of Steves’ “Iran: Yesterday and Today,” images of Persepolis appear three times, Iran’s 2500-year legacy of civilization is praised, and the viewer is primed for footage of the “splendid monuments of Iran’s rich and glorious past.”
The significance of Iran’s cultural heritage in capturing the imagination of foreign travelers is further reflected in the plot of the 2006 Iranian adaptation of My Big Fat Greek Weeding, titled in Farsi Ezdevaj be Sabk-e Irani (Marriage, Iranian Style). One day while working at her father’s tour agency, the female lead Shirin meets an American, David Howard (Davood), when he comes into the office to schedule a tour to Shiraz. The scene is painfully awkward for both characters—and the viewer, I should add—but through this brief encounter, a budding courtship begins. Shirin’s father is particularly displeased and seeks to distance the two, but her Uncle Mehdi and mother Akram-Khanoum conspire to arrange for Shirin to join the tour as a guide. The first steps of a flirtatious dance between the David and Shirin occur on the tour—upon the Apadana of Persepolis itself no less—and culminate in David’s declaration of his love for Shirin at the Tomb of Hafez. The choice of these settings is far from accidental, connecting the intercultural romance—and by extension, the relationship between the protagonists’ two countries—directly to Iranian heritage.
The significance of Iran’s cultural heritage sites, beyond their clear symbolic importance to Iran’s national identity, is reflected not just in media representations of the country, but in the fact that tourism and cultural heritage have been coupled administratively in Iran since their merger into a single government agency in 1982. In its various organizational forms, this agency has overseen the development of a network of museums and foundations, academic departments and research centers, contractors, and traditional craft producers, as well as charitable trusts and religious endowments. In 2019, the former Organization for Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism (ICHHTO) was upgraded to the status of an official government ministry (the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts or MCTH). While my sources tell me that this has not resulted in significant changes to the structure of the organization or its personnel, it has increased its prestige, and crucially, its budget. Whatever the motives for and ultimate effects of this administrative reorganization might be, the change reflects the important role that tourism has come to play in Iran’s government, public policy, and economy.
According to Mohammad-Hossein Asgharpour, MCTH’s Director General of the Office of Facilities and Resources, in its first year, the ministry oversaw the execution of approximately 750 projects, representing investments of USD 153.6 million, providing direct employment for 7266 people. These projects include everything from the development of hotels, eco-tourism resorts, guesthouses, and health villages, to supporting museums and restoration/conservation efforts. As indicated by a recent statement from the MCTH’s Director General of the Office for Tourism Studies and Training, considerable investments are being made in capacity-building and human capital. In the first six months of the Iranian year 1399 (2020-21), at least 10,000 stakeholders and professionals attended trainings sponsored by the Ministry in a range of domains. These include workshops on topics such as: facilities management, ecotourism and sustainability, applications of new technologies, quality management, financial management, etiquette and hospitality, and training and retraining tour guides. While it is difficult to ascertain the exact proportion of the ministry’s budget spent on human capital and tourism, as opposed to heritage protection, preservation, restoration, and research, there can be no doubt that archaeological sites and museums are a major draw for tourists and represent focal points of infrastructural investment in the tourism industry.
With a favorable exchange rate, a famous culture of hospitality, and numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, not to mention all the investment outlined above, Iran should by all accounts be a highly sought-after destination for international travelers. Major tour operators targeting foreign tourists are certainly keen to highlight Iran’s cultural heritage on their websites and in their advertising. These firms emphasize above all else the depth of history and culture in Iran, spotlighting ancient monuments as well as Iran’s rich artistic and architectural traditions. One operator currently provides seven main tour packages, three of which are specifically focused on heritage, but all of which involve visiting heritage sites. Another tour leads its pitch with an invitation to experience “the wondrous remains of the ancient capital of Persepolis – the scale and grandeur will leave you in no doubt that this was once the center of the known world.” Welcome to Iran’s Iran Historical Tours describes Iran as a land with an “ancient civilization, rich history, [and] historical monuments,” highlighting Iran’s archaeological heritage as a particular draw for tourists interested in art and history.
English-speaking tourists who might have come into contact with this advertising copy, however, constitute only a fraction of all the tourists traveling to and within Iran. After the United States pulled out of the JCPOA, despite specific targeted attempts to attract foreign tourists to Iran from Europe and China, arrivals from these countries decreased by 25-40%, whereas arrivals from neighboring countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan increased substantially. According to MCTH, many of these “tourists” are actually pilgrims, who have come to Iran to experience the country’s Islamic—rather than ancient—heritage. In terms of visas issued, the number of pilgrims exceeded tourists in 1396 (2017-18) by approximately 100,000, and in 1397 (2018-2019) by over 1 million.
Regardless of the origins and motivations of tourists coming to Iran, heritage is clearly a draw and is recognized as potentially big business. Prior to and immediately following the signing of the JCPOA, experts and policymakers had hoped that the tourism industry would not only benefit from the normalization of Iran’s international relations, but in fact become a central part of the Iranian economy, providing a sustainable base for employment and revenue for years to come. By MCTH’s own accounting, nearly 1.3 million people are employed in the tourism industry in Iran. In 2016, the economic activity of the sector represented approximately 2 percent of the country’s GDP and all indicators suggest that it continued to grow until early 2020. Before COVID-19 struck, despite American sanctions, the Iranian heritage and tourism sector was flourishing, attracting 8 million foreign tourists in the Iranian calendar year 1397 (2018-19). This represents significant growth from ten years prior, when Iran recorded only 3 million foreign arrivals.
Ultimately, it appears that American sanctions did not significantly slow the arrival of foreign tourists to Iran, though it may have had an impact on who visited Iran and from where. In the first three months of 1399 (2020-21), however, only 74 foreign tourists visited Iran, and with inter-provincial travel subject to stiff restrictions, the tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with estimates of losses across the industry exceeding two billion dollars in the first six months of 1399. Regardless of the pandemic, however, because of the pressure of sanctions, the MCTH’s long-term strategic outlook was already focused on fostering the growth of domestic tourism as a pillar of sustainable development. Between 1397 (2018-19) and 1398 (2019-20), domestic tourism reportedly increased by 20 percent. Two European colleagues related that between 2016-2018, while there were increased numbers of Italian, French, German, and Chinese tourists visiting the sites where they were working, the overwhelming majority of tourists were Iranian. It is important to note, however, that while there is substantial domestic demand, spending by Iranian nationals is seen to be lower than that of foreign visitors, even though foreign tourists must travel with cash as it is presently impossible to make payments using international credit cards. Despite obstacles to capitalizing on the available opportunities and the Coronavirus pandemic, this sector is still seen by policymakers as one with great potential for growth.
At the present juncture, however, it is difficult to gauge the direct and specific effect of American sanctions on the economics of the Iranian cultural heritage management sector. But by recognizing the importance of Iranian cultural heritage to the tourism industry and examining the impact of American policy on that sector, we can obliquely approximate the consequences of maximum pressure on heritage management. Currently, it appears that American sanctions have had two outcomes: first, there has been a decrease in foreign tourists from Europe and China coupled with an increase in foreign tourists from neighboring countries, presumably for pilgrimage; and second, policymakers have shifted their attention to stimulating demand for domestic tourism. By all measures, however, the industry has been severely handicapped by the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering job losses estimated at around 13,000 by August 2020 among tour guides alone, not to mention in hotels and travel agencies. Prognoses for the future remain bleak, as demand is not likely to rebound soon, and promised government support for the industry has been slow to materialize.
Yet, the importance of tourism for improving Iran’s image on the world stage is clear. According to the results of MCHT-internal surveys, tourists reported a “very positive view” of Iran after visiting, noting how much their opinion of the country had changed after seeing it with their own eyes, rather than through the lens of the media. Ali Asghar Mounesan, the Minister in charge of MCTH, recently observed that tourists are cultural ambassadors all over the world, but nowhere more so than in Iran. Indeed, according to Mounesan, tourism has the ability to bring nations closer together. Iran’s heritage plays a role in cultural diplomacy that goes far beyond tourism, however. In the next article in this series, we will explore in greater depth the impact of American sanctions on museum exchanges and inter-institutional cooperation in the heritage sector.